Early on in his reign at Liverpool Brendan Rodgers expressed that his favorite formation was a 4-3-3 with one holding midfielder flanked by two midfield shuttlers. Louis Van Gaal went into this season fully intending to play the same 3-5-2 at Manchester United that he had success with at the World Cup with Holland. It was ironic then that Manchester United have recently switched to a 4-3-3 while Rodgers has adopted a system with three at the back similar to the one Van Gaal had planned on implementing at United.
The system changes had paid off for both managers. Manchester United came into today's fixture on the back of a 3-0 win over Tottenham, their most impressive display of the season, while Liverpool hadn't lost in the league since their 3-0 defeat to Manchester United in December, the first time they used the 3-4-2-1 they've since switched to.
In the opening half it was Van Gaal's 4-3-3 that won out. United played some of their most fluid football of the season with Marouane Fellaini and Ander Herrera finding space either side of Joe Allen and Jordan Henderson, the two holders in Liverpool's midfield. Liverpool's system requires a great deal of defensive work in the middle of the pitch from Allen and Henderson because the two attacking midfielders, Adam Lallana and Coutinho today, stay higher up the pitch. As a result, Liverpool can get overloaded in central midfield zones but with three center backs covering in behind it's not always much of a problem in terms of the opposition creating great scoring chances. However, being overloaded in that zone makes it much more difficult to win the ball back which is what we saw today. Manchester United were able to keep possession and dictate the tempo. They had 60% possession at halftime.
Defensively, Van Gaal's side was compact and didn't allow Liverpool to use their four man central midfield to overload them. They defended with a midfield bank of five with Fellaini and Herrera either side of Michael Carrick and Juan Mata and Ashley Young tucking inside from their wide midfield positions. Lallana and Coutinho like to operate in space between the opposition center midfielder and wide midfielder or fullback. However, with United's compact midfield bank of five these spaces didn't exist. Lallana completed just three passes in the attacking third before being subbed off at halftime. Coutinho had more of an impact but didn't enjoy the space to collect possession in midfield and dribble at the defense the way he typically does.
Rodgers tried to change the shape at halftime to give Liverpool more control of the game, replacing Lallana with Steven Gerrard. Liverpool changed from a midfield box with two holders and two attacking midfielders to a diamond with a holder in Gerrard, two shuttlers in Allen and Henderson and a #10 at the tip of the diamond in Coutinho. Gerrard was meant to dictate the tempo at the base of midfield and find penetrating, expansive forward passes. During the extremely brief period he was on the pitch the change in shape seemed to be having the desired impact of giving Liverpool more control of the game. Gerrard completed four passes including a sweeping cross field switch to the right channel.
Liverpool fought well after Gerrard's dismissal but Van Gaal's side were deserving winners. They seem to have struck a nice balance in recent weeks with Rooney in his favored position up front and the excellent Mata getting a run in the side. This result struck a blow to Liverpool's UCL hopes- they haven't been particularly good over the last two games and will need to be at their best from here on out if they're to have any chance of catching United.